Money is not the only object: A focus on place is needed to address regional imbalances in R&D

23 Jul 2021 11:52 AM

Without an open regional dialogue on the interconnection of place, technology and investment, there is a real danger that the UK will not be able to keep pace and support innovation to be a global leader, writes Laura Foster, Progamme Manager tech & innovation at techUK.

The UK Government’s Research and Development (R&D) Roadmap, released in July last year, and national strategies such as the Innovation Strategy, will aim to make the UK a global leader in science and technology.

However there remains deep misalignment in areas of public investment in the UK. While London receives large amounts of public funding, areas such as the West Midlands receive significantly less publicly-funded R&D support. This is not new with  research showing why equal access to innovation in the UK is vital, with high levels of investment in R&D directly associated with increased productivity, living standards and quality of life.

Therefore whilst the continued push for innovation in the UK is undoubtedly positive, the achievements of these strategies will be seriously hindered if they do not support local and regional communities from across the UK access innovation.

However money is not the only object here. We must not overlook the importance of place when addressing lack of innovation and regional disparity, since policy makers cannot just increase R&D funding across the regions as a panacea. It also needs to include equal access, which relies on wider Government investment in supporting infrastructure such as transportation, health and education.

In Greater Manchester, for example, a report by the Good Things Foundation suggests as many as 1.2 million residents could be excluded in some way from the benefits of digital innovation — with over 700,000 people in Greater Manchester only using the internet in a narrow or limited way and a further 450,000 classified as “non-users”.

This digital exclusion directly hinders the adoption of emerging technologies, such as AI, which despite having overwhelmingly positive deployment use cases, bring a degree of justifiable apprehension for many in the UK workforce with people scared that this technology will replace jobs. This fear is exacerbated  by the lack of opportunity or access to reskill with the digital skills needed for a future of innovation.

Though apprehension may not be a significant barrier for other emerging technologies, such as quantum technologies, access to a workforce with the skills and resources needed to commercialise this technology in the UK certainly is and the UK is in danger of missing out on crucial opportunities to be leaders in innovation.

For Manchester, this is especially pertinent as it was recently named the fastest growing tech city in Europe by Tech Nation, with investment growing by 277% in 2019 from £48 million to £181 million.

Without an open regional dialogue on the interconnection of place, technology and investment, there is a real danger that the UK will not be able to keep pace and support innovation to be a global leader

Local Digital Capital

At the end of 2020, techUK released eight reports covering investment into different nations and regions in the UK, each identifying core opportunities and barriers to investment in each area. These reports also emphasised why Local Digital Capital - a coalition of eight inputs that together can build, sustain, and grow a local tech ecosystem, and includes core components such as digital skills, digital adoption, digital infrastructure and trade support - underlines innovation in the UK.

Bringing regional access to R&D

The good news is that the UK R&D strategy takes into account regional differences in R&D, as will the Place Advisory Group which will support the government’s levelling up agenda and its wider approach in the context of wider economic recovery from COVID-19.

In addition, techUK will be launching the Local Digital Capital (LDC) index later this year. This will set a framework to measure LDC across our nations and regions, including the research and innovation component, allowing us to understand tech's role in levelling-up

It is also worth noting there are many important industry-led initiatives starting within regional communities that are promoting regional networks of innovation that will support R&D, such as the Scottish Geospatial Network Integrator that is connecting their regional geospatial market.

The UK Government focus on Innovation is a real opportunity to empower regional development however making this a success must mean moving beyond questions about funding  to also include a focus on strong place-based collaboration and coordination. Doing this will not only make innovation in the UK a success, but mark a major change in how we build R&D innovation as central to prosperity for all.